Campus Free Speech

Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jordan Peterson, Others Urge Portland State Not to Punish Peter Boghossian for 'Grievance Studies' Hoax

"It's hard to avoid the conclusion that if the rules forbid it, it's the rules, not the researchers, that have gone wrong."

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Screenshot via Mike Nayna

Several well-known academics wrote letters in support of Portland State University (PSU) philosophy professor Peter Boghossian, a co-author of the hoax "grievance studies" paper now facing academic misconduct charges.

As I reported on Monday, PSU administrators have claimed Boghossian's efforts to trick academic journals into publishing fake studies violated institutional review board (IRB) protocols because he did not seek approval to carry out experiments on human subjects. Boghossian and his supporters—co-authors Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay among them—have protested that they didn't need any such permission, and asking for it would have risked giving away the game.

To recap: Boghossian, Pluckrose, and Lindsay submitted hoax papers with social justice themes—animal sexuality, fat studies, etc.—to leftist academic journals in order to demonstrate that fake, jargon-filled treatises on oppression and intersectionality could easily pass for the real thing. By some measures, they were successful: Seven of the papers were approved for publication. But this little experiment has landed Boghossian—the only one of the three with an actual academic position—in hot water with PSU's IRB, which determined that he conducted unethical research.

Boghossian has asked his defenders to write letters of support to PSU's administration, and several prominent names have done so. Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, author of Enlightenment Now and The Better Angels of Our Nature, urged PSU not to seek revenge on Boghossian for raising legitimate questions.

"This strikes me (and every colleague I've spoken with) as an attempt to weaponize an important [principle] of academic ethics in order to punish a scholar for expressing an unpopular opinion," wrote Pinker. "If scholars feel they have been subject to unfair criticism, they should explain why they think the critic is wrong. It should be beneath them to try to punish and silence him."

The author Richard Dawkins used even stronger language, accusing PSU of seeking to punish satire.

"To pretend that this is a matter of publishing false data is so obviously ridiculous that one cannot help suspecting an ulterior motive," wrote Dawkins.

And Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist and leading thinker of the so-named Intellectual Dark Web, wrote that "any 'academic misconduct' that is occurring is being perpetrated by those who are raising and pursuing the allegations, and most certainly not on the part of Dr. Boghossian."

In the last 24 hours, I've interacted with many scholars, academics, and higher education experts with a variety of opinions about PSU's actions. Not all agree that the administration is in the wrong. Joel Christensen, an associate professor of classical studies at Brandeis University, told Inside Higher Ed that Boghossian "did commit academic fraud, by design, and that some professional sanctions might be warranted," but he believed that such sanctions should not include termination. (That was in line with what Jeffrey Sachs, a lecturer at Acadia University, expressed to me when I asked him for comment on Monday.) Others have furiously debated whether the IRB would have been likely to authorize the project.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education's Robert Shibley worries that Boghossian's situation is evidence that IRBs in general have moved well beyond their original mandate, which was to protect test subjects from real abuse. The federal law requiring scientists to consult IRBs before gathering research dates to 1974, and was originally intended to prevent misconduct along the lines of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, in which researchers failed to give proper medical care to hundreds of black patients who had contracted the disease. According to Shibley:

Over time, the use of IRBs has become increasingly commonplace, and seemingly required, even for social science research or experiments that have a far less direct effect on the humans who might be involved. As Columbia law professor Philip Hamburger, a prominent critic of the current role of IRBs, has pointed out, even oral history projects and opinion poll research, which simply consist of asking people for their own stories or opinions, can be subject to change or simply forbidden by IRBs. (Oral history, at least, was relieved of this burden by federal regulatory changes that took effect just last year.)

Particularly when removed from the medical context, it becomes all too easy for some fundamental IRB rules—such as the requirement that studies be done only with the informed consent of all human participants—to fail to work well. As Lindsay and Pluckrose point out, the Grievance Studies Affair is one of these situations, as "it is impossible to conduct a valid quality assurance investigation, which this audit was, after informing those being audited that they're under examination." Assuming it's correct to characterize the journal editors as subjects of an experiment who needed to be protected from its potential physical or psychological harm, the IRB process would at the very least have required that the authors inform all of the potential "subjects" that faked research papers were coming their way. Truly "informed" consent might have required rather more specificity than that. It doesn't take a scientist (or a whole group of them on an IRB) to understand that such a restriction would make this particular research effort pointless, but PSU nevertheless determined that the research violated its rules and was worthy of discipline.

Shibley concluded his post with this observation: "When it comes to this type of research…it's hard to avoid the conclusion that if the rules forbid it, it's the rules, not the researchers, that have gone wrong."

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38 responses to “Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jordan Peterson, Others Urge Portland State Not to Punish Peter Boghossian for 'Grievance Studies' Hoax

  1. This wasn’t transgressive research, it was wrongthink.

  2. You’re doing a good job covering this Robby. I think this a complex question, and so I enjoy reading your summations of them.

  3. PSU administrators have claimed Boghossian’s efforts to trick academic journals into publishing fake studies violated institutional review board (IRB) protocols because he did not seek approval to carry out experiments on human subjects.

    It’s a real stretch when reviewers for leftist academic journals are classified as human.

    1. It’s a real stretch when reviewers for leftist academic journals are classified as human.

      Also, the term ‘experiment’ implies that the outcome was in question. “I gave the monkeys poo and they flung it.” is really more observation than experiment.

  4. There are these various supposed humanoids, pretend humanoids, and Russian-trollbutt-synthesized synthetic emulated -by-AI-plausible- sounding “faux” humanoids, that publish SUPPOSEDLY well-thought-out “studies” of stuff-and-stuff (and other stuffy stuff), and sometimes even on these very right-here and right-now Reasonoid web page comments.

    I’m thinking of Tulpa; don ye now yer gay tri-cornered aluminum-foil hat, and tune him-her in…

    They are saying, “Forget the night! Come live with us, in forests of mindless azure…”

    This is the 5-year mission of the Voyage of Voyeur onto the Realm of the Sane, a Spy in the House of Reality! REALLY now!

  5. Hard for me to believe anyone who has ever dealt with an IRB for human subjects research would make such a stink about how the IRB *cannot* allow them to do “research” without forewarning the subjects of the research. This is patently false. While it is indeed unusual to begin a study without any prior contact with the subjects, it is not always disallowed. One of the reasons the IRBs exist is to vet researcher claims about the necessity of deception. They very frequently approve requests to lie to the subjects when the researcher shows that it shouldn’t harm the subjects and the research couldn’t be conducted otherwise.

    It would have been a pain in the ass for them to run this design through the IRB, but it wouldn’t have been impossible. It would have given them much more credibility and might have given them some ideas on how to do it better/in a way less likely to be called unethical. It was their lack of expertise, laziness, and/or own reservations about the ethics of the “research” that stopped them from going through the IRB.

    1. You’re one of those idiots who will be hung out to dry by this IRB process if you think this should have been run through the IRB process. You need to start thinking one step ahead. No wonder people like to say Trump is play n-D chess — you clowns aren’t even capable of 0-D checkers!

      1. 0-D? Does this mean that all of the checkers occupy the same point in time and space?

        1. game-board’s in the universe on the other side.

        2. If you have to ask how to play 0-D chess, you’re losing.

    2. In the real world this would be called an audit and the people making a stink about it are those that failed or those that see the usefulness in having such failures around to use as necessary.

  6. Peter Boghossian

    He’s just a gold old boy, never meanin’ no harm.

    1. Makin’ his way, the only way he knows how.

      That’s just a little bit more than IRB will allow.

  7. “It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that if the rules forbid it, it’s the rules, not the researchers, that have gone wrong.”

    Damn straight. Requiring pre-approval and informed consent is obviously proper for actual experimentation on humans. Equally obviously, making fun of people does not require consent. If these clowns think this is a good road to head down, they’ll be watching a whole lotta SJW being strung up by their own petard.

  8. People hate whistleblowers exposing their corruption which threatens their gravy train, news at 11

  9. Awesome to see such support for respected fellow academics for his exposing the low and Leftist bias in academia with his “research”… I hope this will help call out the issue and the fact they’re trying to retaliate against him.

  10. If only an IRB had been in charge of the research done by Cambridge Analytica, we wouldn’t have a Russian plant as President!

    Boghossian is a fool for feigning ignorance, but PU is proving itself to be a nefarious and malevolent foil. So… good troll, IMO.

  11. He should argue that he wasn’t doing research at all. Instead, he’s a whistleblower and, therefore, protected by whistleblower laws.

  12. Academic fraud is when you publish bogus data and then use that to get funding or a promotion.

    The hullabaloo did prevent him from publishing his findings in a way that would have told us whether he did this in good faith.

  13. >>>now facing academic misconduct charges

    embarrassed people are dangerous.

  14. Pinker-Dawkins-Peterson. I see these names grouped together all the time. Are they like, in a band or something?

  15. Yeah, no.

    If it was an “experiment”, he needed review.

    If it wasn’t an “experiment” (as some here have claimed), then he was just straight-up falsifying data.

    The fact that he let the known-bad papers go to print after he already had his “data point” is a big black mark against him.

    1. Black mark? Like the difference between hearsay and proof?

    2. Yeah, no.

      If it was an “experiment”, he needed review.

      If it wasn’t an “experiment” (as some here have claimed), then he was just straight-up falsifying data.

      The fact that he let the known-bad papers go to print after he already had his “data point” is a big black mark against him.

      You realize this is only true in your little grad school academic construct, right?

      I’m not saying you aren’t right. Just the saddest and most meaninglessly petty form of right.

    3. EscherEnigma|1.8.19 @ 6:40PM|#
      “Yeah, no.
      If it was an “experiment”, he needed review.
      If it wasn’t an “experiment” (as some here have claimed), then he was just straight-up falsifying data.”

      This idiot posts stuff like this on a regular basis.
      Buzz off, imbecile.

    4. The fact that he let the known-bad papers go to print after he already had his “data point” is a big black mark against him.

      Your comment is a big black mark against you.

  16. This sounds to me kinda like getting arrested and charged with wire-tapping in a two-party consent state when the person being surreptitiously recorded without his consent is the government official who’s shaking you down for a bribe. Something about forests and trees.

  17. It’s hard to not see this as the gatekeepers of academic integrity not liking research finding they have none.

    I get that the inscrutable and nonsensical ramblings that passes for academic research these days would make it hard to discern the difference between a “serious scholarly work” and a random sentence generator but to me that just shows how far down these institutions have fallen. If the gatekeepers were doing their job there would be a difference that would be plain to see for those within their specialized field.

  18. The Solomon Asch experiments on “Opinions and Social Pressure” back in 1955 would also have been banned. Oh… I get it now… THAT’s the whole point of the Inquisition! This must be foreshadowing for a ban on the counting of law-changing spoiler votes…

  19. This is the conclusion of the story of the little boy who points out that the Emperor is not wearing any clothes.

    1. Absolutely! In the child’s version everyone sides with the child and we all learn an important lesson. In reality, the child is swiftly punished and forced to publically admit he was wrong,

      1. Pratchett beat you to it:

        “But if you knew a bit more, it would be The Story of the Boy Who Got a Well-Deserved Thrashing from His Dad for Being Rude to Royalty, and Was Locked Up.
        Or The Story of the Whole Crowd Who Were Rounded Up by the Guards and Told ‘This Didn’t Happen, OK? Does Anyone Want to Argue?’
        Or it could be a story of how a whole kingdom suddenly saw the benefit of the ‘new clothes’, and developed an enthusiasm for healthy sports in a lively and refreshing atmosphere which got many new adherents every year, and led to a recession caused by the collapse of the conventional clothing industry.
        It could even be a story about The Great Pneumonia Epidemic of ’09.
        It all depends on how much you know.”

        (TOT)

  20. “”To pretend that this is a matter of publishing false data is so obviously ridiculous that one cannot help suspecting an ulterior motive,” wrote Dawkins.”

    That’s our bulldog!

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  23. Just as alarming, is my understanding that equally nonsensical papers from the exposed disciplines were used to support some of the arguments by the authors. The larger issue is that professors are teaching this nonsense to students who bring it to the work place later. The work world is not a better place because of it. The publish or perish environment is hurting us.

  24. All attention given to discussing whether Boghossian should have gotten approval is a attention taken away from a conversation about the implications of the utter lack of rigor in these grievance studies journals. Whether he is censured or fired is beside the point. The effort to derail the conversation about the implications of their results is succeeding.

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